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Honoring Excellence at Bank Street: The 2019 Cook Prize and Irma S. and James H. Black Awards

Readers and writers, teachers, publishers, and librarians gathered on May 16 to celebrate the recipients of the Irma Simonton Black and James H. Black Award for Excellence in Children’s Literature, and the Cook Prize, presented to children’s books in the field of STEM. The ceremony was held at Bank Street College.

Each year, young writers are invited to help select award honorees and winners for both prizes. This year, more than 7,000 children across the United States, Canada, Europe, Asia, and the United Arab Emirates participated in voting for their favorite books.

Delivering a keynote address at the event was Caldecott Medalist Brian Floca, who spoke about the creative process, focusing on his picture book Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11 (Atheneum).

Floca opened his keynote by explaining that “I finished Moonshot not because I wanted to, but because I had to.... If you love the material, you don’t want to stop working.” He elaborated by discussing the challenge of letting a project go—particularly when it comes to one that focuses on a topic as expansive as space travel. Throughout his career, Floca has learned about the value of setting limits; “from limits come the shapes of stories,” he said.

Floca described his childhood fascination with the Apollo missions—a fascination that grew with him into adulthood. “I fell in love with everything about the missions. I loved the astronauts, the machines, the terror, the view.” He often thought about writing and illustrating a picture book on the topic, but his early attempts were unsuccessful because, as he put it, “I tried to tell everything.”

Floca put the project aside, but rediscovered it following a dream he had. In the dream, it was nearing the 40th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing, and it was too late for him to finish the book to coincide with the anniversary milestone. When he woke up, he realized that it wasn’t too late after all, dusted off the manuscript, and got started. “This time I was more ruthless.” He’d forgotten a lot of the material that he had originally planned to include in the book, “but the things I remembered were the things the book needed. Time is the best editor,” he said.

When it came time to turn in the book, he accepted that he would need to let go. But, two decades after he drafted the first manuscript, Floca had an opportunity that most authors never get: to make updates to a previously published book. For a new edition commemorating the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, Floca kept limits in mind, but he relished being able to add eight new pages of material—and tweak a few details. “I gave Neil Armstrong some stubble and corrected the shading on the lunar module,” he said.

Floca concluded by speaking about the importance of not letting the story of the moon landing fade into history. He realized how distant the event might feel to young people today after a child at a school asked him, “How did you decide to name the modules Columbia and Eagle?” As useful as limits might be, Floca said, they should never restrict the capacity to imagine possibilities, and to remember the sublimity of true human experience. From that miraculous view, he said, “[the astronauts] saw it: our home, our little planet, in all its potential, all its limits, its beauty, and its frightfulness.”

A Harmony of Words and Pictures

From planet Earth to a close neighbor, Stacy McAnulty’s Sun! One in a Billion was awarded the first of the day’s three Irma S. and James H. Black Honors, which are presented to books in which words and illustrations operate in seamless harmony.

McAnulty accepted the honor via Skype, speaking about the “wonderful process” behind the selection of the prize, and stating that “I am honored to get to bring some nonfiction to life. I love that [the sun] is reaching so many kids and getting them excited about science and facts. He is a star!” In a statement, illustrator Stevie Lewis commented on the joy of illustrating a character with such “energy and personality.... Sun is a great example of words and illustrations working together to tell a story,” she said.

Author-illustrator Jon Agee was awarded the honor for The Wall in the Middle of the Book (Dial) with a statement read by Summer Ogata, school and library marketing manager at Penguin Random House. Agee spoke about how “the book became more political than I imagined,” as the wall in question began drawing comparisons to “another wall in the news.” In reality, said Agee, “I was not thinking about that wall at all.” The wall in Agee’s book is the book’s gutter, which the knight protagonist falsely believes will protect him from the dangers that lurk on the other side of the book. In writing and illustrating the picture book, he said, “I was thinking about point of view, preconceived notions, and hoped [to encourage] readers to look at things with new eyes.”

Lucy Ruth Cummins accepted her honor for Stumpkin (Atheneum), a story about a pumpkin without a stem. Cummins spoke about the origins of the story: while picking out a pumpkin with her son, he was drawn toward a pumpkin that didn’t have a stem. A little girl saw him selecting the stemless pumpkin, and asked her mother: “Mommy, can I tell him?” Mother and daughter explained to her son: “You don’t want that one. It doesn’t have a stem!” At that moment, Cummins said, “I watched him come up against a world of expectations.” She also knew then, that “Stumpkin’s story must be told.” She added. “I should really thank that cruel little girl and her mother.”

Ryan T. Higgins was awarded the Irma Simonton Black Award for We Don’t Eat Our Classmates (Disney-Hyperion), about a T. rex who learns that eating one’s fellow students is not the best way to make friends. Higgins spoke about the joy of creating books for young readers and having the opportunity to share his stories during school visits. Higgins admitted that he doesn’t always know where a book will end up when he begins it. While We Don’t Eat Our Classmates is a book about “learning to treat others how we want to be treated,” Higgins was initially writing about self-control and “about how I eat too many Cheetos.” He’d hoped that his readers would “connect with this T. rex in pink overalls,” though he admits to being a bit concerned about how the book might be received, as, “the target audience gets eaten.” He concluded by thanking his readers, saying, “If not for kids sharing my sense of humor, I wouldn’t have a job.”

Champions of STEM

Sara Levine, author of Fossil by Fossil: Comparing Dinosaur Bones (Lerner/Millbrook Press), was the first to accept her Cook Prize honor. She discussed how, during her school presentations, she helps readers connect to the topic of dinosaur bones by inviting them to think about their own skeletal structures. In addition to seeking to write a book about a lively, relatable topic, it was important to Levine to feature characters who are not always represented. Going forward, she has vowed to write books that feature more diverse characters, not as side characters, but as protagonists.

In a statement, the book’s illustrator, T.S. Spookytooth, spoke about the importance of promoting STEM topics in children’s books. Spookytooth thanked the children who selected Fossil by Fossil as a favorite, saying, “All those lonely days of painting and making sure that a stegosaurus has the right number of bones... or that the color of a child’s jumper matches through all 32 pages of a book—it’s all worth it to get recognition like this.”

Accepting a Cook Prize honor on behalf of Lily Williams, author-illustrator of If Polar Bears Disappeared (Roaring Brook), was her editor Emily Feinberg. In a statement, Williams wrote that “awards like these are so critical for [building] awareness about threatened species.” She added that she sees hope for the future lying with children—“the thoughtful stewards of our planet.”

Next to receive her honor was Cheryl Bardoe for Nothing Stopped Sophie: The Story of Unshakable Mathematician Sophie Germain (Little, Brown). Bardoe opened with saying, “I often tell my husband, who’s a math teacher, that math needs a good PR campaign.” In writing the picture book biography of little-known mathematician Sophie Germain, Bardoe was able to shed light on STEM topics, which she believes “can feel very abstract for children.” She discussed how important it is for readers to see the “human endeavor behind STEM advancements.” For young people today, “hard-earned discoveries are just things that people always knew.” She hopes that readers will become inspired by a figure like Sophie Germain, who serves as an example of how “thinking, asking questions, and daydreaming” can lead to innovation.

Saying that “my eighth grade algebra teacher would be shocked that I’m accepting an award related to math in any way,” illustrator Barbara McClintock spoke about how, as a person who was always deeply “math averse,” Bardoe’s writing “made Sophie’s passion relatable to me... from the first paragraph on, I met Sophie as a dreamer.” As McClintock conveyed Sophie’s love for numbers through her mixed-media art, “I realized that I didn’t experience the same sense of panic I did when I usually thought about math.” She hopes that readers, too, will discover the beauty of numbers by reading Germain’s story.

The final book to be honored with the 2019 Cook Prize was Counting on Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Saved Apollo 13 (Holt/Ottaviano) by Helaine Becker, illustrated by Dow Phumiruk. Becker spoke about her early connection to the Apollo 13 mission: her father was an engineer who worked on the lunar module. “Funny how things link together,” she said. As a lifelong feminist, Becker had often searched for the stories of women who had been overlooked by history. So when she first learned about Katherine Johnson (this was before Hidden Figures), “I was gobsmacked, flabbergasted, and appalled that I hadn’t heard of her before.” She reached out to Katherine’s daughter, asking her if her mother would be open to the possibility of her writing a picture book about her. Johnson’s daughter responded, telling her that her mother loved the idea—and that she had checked out Becker’s credentials. She was satisfied that Becker was legit; it turned out that Johnson’s grandson had some of Becker’s books on his shelf.

As Becker was interviewing Johnson and researching her life, she thought more about the reasons why Johnson was so little-known. Becker believes that Johnson wasn’t written about in history books “because people write about the things that interest them,” and historically, those most often doing the writing were white men whose interests were more likely to reflect their own experiences. She concluded by touching on the value of literacy, saying “when you have literacy, you get to have your own story.”

Phumiruk next accepted her award, echoing Becker’s amazement that an individual like Katherine Johnson was almost lost to history. “How was it that Katherine Johnson’s story had not been told?” She finished by saying, “I hope that readers are inspired by this trailblazing woman.”

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